Smithsonian book showcases first ladies

First ladies Grace Coolidge, Michelle Obama and Abigail Adams.
First ladies Grace Coolidge, Michelle Obama and Abigail Adams.

Being the nation’s first lady isn’t always an enviable job. But there is a fringe benefit: the dresses.

    For years, visitors have come to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History to gaze upon ornate, lacy, satiny, silky and, in modern times, flashy inaugural gowns. If you would like to see the always-popular “First Ladies” exhibit at the Smithsonian but can’t get there any time soon, the museum has come up with the next best thing: a book that shows off the gowns and other treasures from its collection.
    The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection, written by a museum official and former staff editor at the Smithsonian, includes photographs of tableware, invitations, jewelry, handbags and other items used by first ladies from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama.
    There are even some items in the book that you can’t see in the museum’s display cases. They are too rare or fragile to put on public view, according to the Smithsonian.
    Publication of the First Ladies Collection coincides with the centennial of the exhibit, which opened Feb. 1, 1914. The exhibit, which has inhabited various locations since then, has been at the Smithsonian’s history museum since the museum opened Jan. 23, 1964.
    The 104-page book, which includes a timeline of all 46 first ladies, isn’t just about the items they owned and wore. It is also about the women themselves. Short biographies and archival photographs reveal the various ways they adjusted to their place in the hot spotlight of presidential politics. They became hostesses, campaigners, policy advocates and role models. Some had significant influences on American society as a whole, the book explains.
    Anyone interested in the acquisition, conservation and exhibition of first lady memorabilia can find that information in the book as well.
    The authors are Lisa Kathleen Graddy and Amy Pastan.  
    Graddy is deputy chair of the National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History. She is the curator of “The First Ladies” exhibition and the collections concerning women’s suffrage and political history.
    Pastan, a former Smithsonian editor, is a Washington, D.C.-based author, editor and photo researcher. She has written books for both adults and children, including The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia.


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